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AT&T Wireless offers free phone-based Net access

The company announces free mobile phone-based Internet access for customers who purchase one of two models, escalating the emerging wireless Net access battle.

AT&T Wireless today announced free mobile phone-based Internet access when customers purchase one of two phone models, escalating the emerging battle for wireless Net access customers.

Gartner analyst Robert Egan says AT&T's effort to provide free mobile phone-based Internet access falls short as a competitive response to Sprint.

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AT&T's Digital PocketNet service provides free unlimited wireless access to more than 40 Internet content Web sites if customers buy an Internet-enabled phone and subscribe to an AT&T digital voice service plan.

The deal is the latest example of the bundled service packages that communications carriers are offering consumers and comes on the heels of a similar plan being offered by competitor Sprint PCS.

Sprint's offer calls for one add-on option at no extra charge, including free Net access via its wireless Web service, or free long-distance or additional night and weekend minutes, when customers sign up for a Sprint PCS Free & Clear voice package.

The promotions, intended to lure customers with low-cost packages and the simplicity of a single monthly bill, appear to be coming at a rapid pace. As recently as March, AT&T had introduced flat-rate pricing for its PocketNet Internet service. Under the new deal, consumers who also want email access will pay $6.99 per month with a $14.99 per month package that includes wireless phone access to calendar, contacts, to-do lists and other premium mobile phone applications.

"This space is really going to get interesting now," independent communications analyst Jeffrey Kagan said in a daily newsletter. "AT&T's offering is a big leap ahead of most wireless Web browsers out there today, but even theirs is still just in the very early stages of what will be an important revolution. The pace of innovation should accelerate in wireless data."

The free PocketNet access service, first launched in 1997 and revamped last year, provides consumers with access to more than 40 Web sites including Yahoo, and eBay.

The requisite phones include models from Ericsson and Mitsubishi and range in price from $99.99 to $199.99. AT&T's PocketNet service offers data transfer speeds of up to 19.2 kbps (kilobits per second), though faster technologies are expected in a few years.